Five Good Reasons to Leave Administration
Not everyone is cut out to be a college administrator. Some aren’t very good at it. Others simply dislike the work. Still others find that, over time, they develop different priorities.
There is no shame in any of that. One of the best things about higher education as a profession is that the career elevator goes both ways. You can get into administration, try it out for a while, and then if you don’t like it, go back “down” to full-time faculty. In most industries, you’re either moving up or moving out. Thankfully, that’s not true in academia.
Which is not to say there won’t be consequences for leaving an administrative position. Your salary will almost certainly take a hit. You probably won’t be in the loop anymore, alerted in advance when something big is coming down the pike. You may no longer have a seat at the table when important decisions are made.
But depending on your situation, those may be acceptable trade-offs. Indeed, as someone who was an administrator of one sort or another for over 20 years before going back to the classroom a decade ago, I can think of at least five good reasons to leave administration.
This is probably the most common reason people leave administration: it’s hard work, and it’s practically nonstop. Unlike faculty, administrators don’t have long breaks. They don’t get to go home after their classes and office hours. Indeed, they often arrive early, leave late, and still take work home.
Faculty members who have never been administrators don’t like to hear this. They tend to think department chairs, deans, and vice presidents just sit around all day in their large, well-appointed offices doing nothing—except maybe making life harder for faculty. But anyone who has ever been an administrator knows that is far from the truth. As the inimitable Stanley Fish wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2004, “Administrators work harder, they have more work to do, and they actually do it.”
Besides attending interminable meetings and slogging through streams of red tape, the main job of most low- to mid-level administrators is putting out fires. When I was a department chair and academic dean, that’s what I did all day (or at least it seemed that way). Large fires, medium-sized fires, small fires (so they don’t become large fires). Fires kindled by others and fires that sprang up spontaneously. Often, my entire day would be taken up tending to a single crisis that I couldn’t possibly have foreseen but that, without my immediate attention, could escalate into a full-scale fiasco.
Unless you’re just the kind of person who thrives on that kind of stress, who functions best in crisis mode, who doesn’t need much sleep—and thankfully, those kinds of people exist—the pace can be exhausting. After five or 10 years of that, it’s no wonder so many want to go back to the relatively quiet, stress-free life of an academic.
Not everyone wishes to rise to the top of their organization—even if that’s what they thought they wanted when they started. Some discover they’re not comfortable with that level of responsibility. For others, the potential rewards are just not worth the sacrifice of time and effort that could be spent on other pursuits.
Maybe you’re a department chair who has no interest in being a dean or a dean who’s not looking to become a vice president. Perhaps you thought when you took on your first administrative assignment that you might like to work your way up, but now you’ve changed your mind.
If you find yourself in that position, you basically have two choices: you can try staying where you are, assuming you’re comfortable there, or you can get off the administrative track altogether. Since it’s difficult to stay in the same place for very long—partly because, in the ever-shifting higher ed landscape, that place is unlikely to stay the same—many choose the latter option.
Speaking of freeing up time for other pursuits, most people—on the academic side, at least—don’t go into higher education to become administrators. They do it because they want to teach, do research, and publish.
As anyone who has spent any time in administration knows, those things mostly go by the wayside once you take on a leadership role. Lower-level administrators still might teach a course or two (or more, if they’re at a small college), but they have very little time to pursue their own research interests, much less write articles or books.
If you’re an administrator, and you still want to do those things, you’re going to have to either try to carve a few hours out of your busy schedule or get out and go back a full-time faculty role. And since the first option is frankly impractical for most, you’ll just have to decide how badly you want to pursue those other academic interests versus how badly you want to retain your administrative title and salary.
As noted above, this sacrifice-benefit calculation can change over time, as it did for me. I had the opportunity to go into administration fairly early in my career, and for many years I wanted to stay on that track and possibly work my way up. But at mid-career, I realized there were still many other things I wanted to do professionally—like write more books and articles—that I probably wouldn’t be able to do if I stayed in administration. So I left. I suspect that is not at all uncommon.
By “politics” here, I’m not just talking about conservative versus liberal—although that could certainly be a problem. If you’re considerably to the left or right of your bosses, you might find it difficult, even regard it as unethical, to support some of their positions, much less act as their mouthpiece for the faculty.
Yet there are plenty of political issues on a typical campus that aren’t necessarily partisan but that may, nevertheless, strain your ethical sensibilities. And the fact is, as a low- to mid-level administrator, representing the upper administration’s positions to the faculty—that is, taking the party line—is part of your job description, no matter how distasteful you find those positions. Faculty might be able to revolt, but try that as an administrator and see how long you last. And perhaps that is as it should be.
Several years ago, while serving as a campus academic dean, I wrote an op-ed for the local paper expressing my (somewhat unpopular) opinion about a quasi-political issue in our community. The next day, the president pulled me aside and chastised me. “As an administrator, you can’t say things like that,” he told me. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, maybe I don’t want to be an administrator anymore, then.” It took me a few more years to actually make the break, but at that moment the seed was sown.
Finally, keep in mind that it’s not all about you and what you want. The good of the department and the institution should also be a consideration.
If you’ve been doing the job for a while, and you have no interest in or prospects of moving up, it may be time to step aside and let somebody else have a turn. We’ve all known people who held onto power, turning their department or school into a little fiefdom for 20 or more years, until the faculty were praying for them to retire—or for something more drastic. Do you really want to be that person?
Signs that the times may have passed you by include not being up on—or caring about—the latest technology; not being able to understand much of what your younger colleagues say in casual conversation; and looking around one day and realizing you’re the only one still wearing a necktie or skirt.
None of this means it’s necessarily time to retire from the profession—but it might be time to step back from your leadership role and do something else for a few years. Go back to teaching those courses you used to love but haven’t taught in more than a decade. Pick up your research where you left off—or pursue something brand new. Write that book you’ve been meaning to write all these years.
I’m living proof that there is life beyond administration, and it can be extremely enjoyable, fulfilling, and even relaxing by comparison.
Rob Jenkins has spent 38 years in higher education, including more than two decades as an administrator. He is currently an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College. A frequent contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications, Rob is also the author of six books, including Welcome to My Classroom, The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders (with Karl Haden), and Think Better, Write Better. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.